Michael D Higgins interview: The favourite but campaign won’t be easy

President finds himself in the crosshairs just as much as other candidates

October 5th, 2018: Presidential candidate Peter Casey officially launched his campaign for President of Ireland at CHQ in Dublin on Friday 5th October. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

It’s always harder the second time.

Back in 2011, Michael D Higgins had dodgy knees but was the only one left standing as his rivals were toppled in a brutal contest.

This time around, everybody hoped the presidential election campaign would be less rough and tumble, but there is little evidence of that thus far.

Unlike 2011, the incumbent President has found himself in the crosshairs just as much as the other candidates.

There have been the overt issues, such as the controversy over the €317,000 allowance, his reversal of an undertaking to serve only one term, and complaints from other candidates that continuing his Presidential duties at high-profile events allows him an unfair advantage and does not subject him to the same level of scrutiny.

At a lower level there have been claims of extravagance (based on a report in the summer he stayed in a luxury hotel in Geneva); of big entourages accompanying him abroad and of a high turnover of staff in the Áras. That theme was prompted by the sudden departure in 2013 of senior adviser Mary Van Lieshout. At the time, informed sources dismissed suggestions there had been tension between some of the President’s staff.

All that said, Higgins remains the scorching-hot favourite. One or two other candidates might make a race of it, but it would need an act of spontaneous political combustion for the outcome to be changed.

Walking along the street with Higgins, one can see why.

He is physically small but his slow walk, three-piece suits and distinctive pate with long silver locks give him presence. People stop and stare, point him out, greet him, ask for photographs. He certainly has recognition.

In interview, his persona veers from cosmopolitan intellectual to hoary-handed son of the soil. His tone is even and contained, with no hint of the firebrand politician of a former life, who could flare up with outrage.

Positive agenda

He believes it’s a “myth” that he had an easier campaign than others in 2011 and says his long experience means he might be tougher than his rivals. But he is also keen to move on.

“Frankly, I think it’s time in the last two and half weeks to turn to the positive agenda, going into the next seven years, seeing what each of the presidential candidates is offering.”

It would be improper of me to put my own comfort in relation to the campaign ahead of what is the proper decision to make on behalf of the presidency as an institution

He agrees that no candidate should be above scrutiny. But when it comes to responding to details about his term in the Áras, there is opacity. There are constraints, he says, which he is powerless to change.

Take the allowance. He said the amount has been the same since Mary McAleese’s first year in 1998 and used in the same way. He has shared some details of how it is spent but says he will not be in a position to release full details until November, after the election.

But why not publish them now, to avert the issue following him until polling day on October 26th?

“I think it’s much better to do it on an annual basis. When we do a full set of accounts, you will find the figure will be the same as it was that my predecessors.”

Still, why wait to November?

President Michael D Higgins speaks to reporters. Photograph: PA
President Michael D Higgins faces questioning from reporters. Photograph: PA

“It would be improper of me to put my own comfort in relation to the campaign ahead of what is the proper decision to make on behalf of the presidency as an institution,” he says.

“It is not an allowance to me. It is an allowance to the performance of the presidency. Anything that changes will affect the presidents that will come after me into the future. I prefer to do it in an orderly way.”

But does it not leave a vacuum of information that will do little to deter suggestions of impropriety?

“People who make suggestions as to impropriety should justify them. You cannot live in a world of endless speculation of the possible.”

In relation to big entourages travelling abroad, he refers to representatives of all the State agencies and departments such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, and Tourism Ireland.

“I don’t pick or decide the size of the entourage,” he points out.

Good relations

Fellow candidate Peter Casey claimed the number of events the President participated in annually has fallen off considerably since 2012. “Am I meeting less or more people since 2012?” Higgins asks. “I am meeting practically the same amount. I am meeting them in different circumstances.”

So what does he offer now that is different from his first term? Can he offer a role on Brexit like other candidates claim they can?

He nods, assenting.

“Irrespective of how Brexit plays out, the east-west relationships will be very important between us and our largest neighbour,” he says.

“We will need every friend we have in relation to the presidency. Good relations between heads of state will be important.”

To his rivals who emphasise their business acumen on Brexit, he replies: “With the greatest respect to the other candidates, they won’t be reinventing the wheel when it comes to this. It has been happening and there have been results.”

Has the presidency constrained his former natural political instinct, which many people would find traces of in the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn? “There is not such a thing as a natural state of mind. One of the things for those of a leftist disposition is that you have to keep taking account of new circumstances. You have to work with the materials you have in front of you. Like Leonard Cohen, you ring the bells that still can ring, you forget your perfect offering.

If I said I am going to start changing my presidential diary to facilitate myself as a campaigning candidate, I would be putting my interests ahead of my Constitutional role

“That’s what makes me different from Jeremy Corbyn in a way. I know Jeremy Corbyn for 40 years. But one of the big differences is that I have moved on and Jeremy has not moved sufficiently really in relation to Europe.”

Too political?

The President’s comments on Europe have led to claims of being too political. He does not agree.

“What I have been doing, which has not been easy at times, and I have my critics for it, is saying that we can be best served by looking at different models of connection between social cohesion and economy. An innovative economy is best when there is social cohesion and high level of participation.

“Europe is at several different levels of infrastructural development. With fiscal policy, you can save the currency and lose the people. We did that in Europe. Because we lost the people we poured people on to the streets who were then available for predators of people in relation to racism and xenophobia,” he said.

According to his rivals, fulfilling the presidential diary by continuing to attend high-profile events – without having to field tricky questions – gives Higgins an innate advantage.

As the incumbent, there was a precedence in place that obliged him to continue his duties, he says. “If I said I am going to start changing my presidential diary to facilitate myself as a campaigning candidate, I would be putting my interests ahead of my Constitutional role. It is exactly the same argument about the special presidential allowance.”

He has also been criticised for not taking part in enough broadcast debates.

“I am doing the best I can,” he replies, pointing out he has already committed to three debates. “I think I am beginning to see some space for the next two weeks and I am open [to requests] and will go to local radio stations.”

One suspects the campaign won’t get easier for him. It rarely does when it’s the second time round.